You’ve heard of him. Everyone’s heard of Arthur. Artorios Magnus; the Bear, the Dux Bellorum; the King that Was and Will Be. But you haven’t heard the truth. Not till now. I knew him, see. Saw him, smelled him, heard him talk. When I was a boy I rode with Arthur’s band all up and down the world, and I was there are the roots and beginnings of all stories.Philip Reeves’ Carnegie Medal-winning Here Lies Arthur is probably the cleverest and most original retelling of the tale of King Arthur and his Knights that I've ever read. The story is told by Gwyna, a slave-girl whom Arthur’s adviser Myrddin (otherwise known as Merlin) takes under his wing. After helping Myrddin with a cunning plan to unite people under Arthur’s leadership, she remains in his service—but with her long hair cut short, and calling herself Gwyn. As she grows up as a boy in Arthur’s war band, she reports what she sees. And what she sees is not what the stories led us to expect.
The Arthur we find here is a petty and brutal warlord who is simply lucky enough to have a good PR. History is written by the victors, after all, so after each successful battle Arthur and Myrddin rewrite history to make the carnage seem not only right, but necessary. Here Lies Arthur, then, is a brutally honest book about storytelling, propaganda, war, violence, and gender. It’s a book that deconstructs not only this myth in particular, but what myths and stories in general have the power to do. It’s also a book that analyses the many ways in which people try to legitimatise violence.
I’ve always been drawn to books that deal with how storytelling and mythmaking are quintessential human activities; how they have the power to create a whole new truth that becomes more important than facts themselves. But Here Lies Arthur is possibly the first that makes an explicit connection between this and propaganda and malleable truths. The interesting thing is that the tone of the book is always ambiguous—there’s no simplified conclusion such as “beware of stories, for They Are Bad”. Instead, we are shown both the positive and the negative: how very human, and how helpful, even, to have a narrative within which to frame your experiences can be; but also how dangerous and blinding, and how distorted the final version of a story can become. It’s complicated, just like life.
What surprised me the most about Here Lies Arthur, though, was how it dealt with gender. I don’t want to give too much away, but we learn early on that Gwyna is to be raised as a boy, and then Philip incorporates a real Arthurian myth about a young Knight raised as a girl… the result is a story that very satisfactory deals with how gender is a social construct, and with the very real and painful consequences that being held to absolute standards of “manliness” or “womanliness” from which you can’t deviate an inch has in people’s lives. But Gwyna, of course, does deviate. She moves freely from one universe to another and oscillates between two identities. She has access to both worlds, and thus she's able to compare them. She is living proof that gender is malleable, and that a middle ground is preferable to either the confined world of women or the boastful world of men.
Another thing I loved was the fact that Here Lies Arthur brilliantly portrays the male culture of violence into which young boys are socialized—a culture that discourages any form of intimacy or open communication—and what happens to those who don't quite fit in. I hadn't read a book that dealt with this so interestingly since Tender Morsels, and if you've been reading me for a while you'll know that for me comparing a book to Tender Morsels is the highest form of praise.
And finally, I loved the ending. I won’t give it away, naturally, but I loved how once again, roles were reversed and expectations were turned upside down. Here Lies Arthur is smart, fresh, thoughtful, difficult to put down, and probably my new favourite Arthurian book.
“Gwyna, man do love a story. That’s what we’re going to give them this morning, you and I. A story they’ll remember all their lives, and tell to their children and their children’s children until the whole world knows how Arthur came by the sword from the otherworld. And here we are!”They read it too:
I liked the Arthur of the stories better, but some of his bravery and mystery rubbed off on the real man, so that when we came back to Arthur’s place in the harvest and I saw him again, I could not help but think of the time he had captures the glass castle in the Irish Seam or sliced the Black Witch into two halves, like two tubs.
Myrddin said he was not an enchanter, but he worked magic all right. He turned me into a boy, and he turned Arthur into a hero.
…but the look on his face was so strange that I hadn’t the heart to take his story away from him. He believed it, see. He believed the old gods were on Arthur’s side just as he believed that winter would follow autumn and the sun would rise tomorrow. And I thought that maybe that believing would make him brave and strong and lucky when the fighting came, and maybe without it he’d be killed, or turn and run away, which was worse than being killed. So I kept quiet, and the magic waters lapped against the sides of the pool.
I remembered the way that he and the other boys talked about girls. They hadn’t the courage to talk to girls yet, but they talked about them endlessly. They watched them at the marketplace. Their heads turned like the heads of watchful girls when Gwenhyfar’s handmaidens passed them in the street. The laughed, and scoffed, and compared one with another, and I couldn’t join in that talk. It uneased me to hear the way they spoke. How hard they talked of girls’ bodies and how little of their feelings. Like women were just created to be used and traded. They respected horses better.
A Bookshelf Monstrosity
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